Comedy writer Andy Cowan, a Santa Monica resident since 1991, maybe the funniest man in town. In his field, he’s certainly among the most accomplished. Scrolling his credits is reminiscent of Woody’s Allen’s movie Zelig, who magically appears at every major event in modern history.
While Cowan obviously didn’t meet Lindbergh or Capone, as a result of his first “Hollywood” job with Merv Griffin, he met just about everybody else. (Andy refers to his years with Merv as “Showbiz University.”)
Historically, Cowan’s the only writer who collectively wrote for Cheers,3rd Rock from the Sun and Seinfeld. (Andy’s “The Opposite” episode is among the Top 10 all-time Seinfelds!)
In addition to writing, Cowan’s a: comedian, voiceover actor, jazz singer, cartoonist and, with Banging My Head Against the Wall: A Comedy Writer’s Guide to Seeing Stars, an author. (For Jay Leno fans, I point out he wrote the foreword.)
It takes a lot for me to laugh out loud (yes, LOL) off the written page. Reading Cowan’s 432-page tome, I did so dozens of times. (That said, Banging might have been better served halved in length and the other half released as a sequel?)
At any length, the title is perfect. Over decades of “headbanging,” Cowan’s interacted and worked with a who’s who of gifted people that will make your head spin. (Assuming one’s head can spin.)
Andy’s job with Merv as a talent coordinator, writer and recurring comedy performer on the show, centered on pre-interviewing guests and providing Merv with questions for on-air. (Andy’s hilarious impression of Merv, along with many others he does, is spot on.)
In the chapter “What the Stars Told Me,” through Andy’s eyes we “meet” Paul Newman, Laurence Olivier, Steve Allen, Truman Capote, Shelley Winters, Gene Kelly, Andy Kaufman and Orson Welles, to name but a few. (Cowan interviewed Welles eight times, including the day before the legendary filmmaker passed away.)
For Seinfeld fans, Andy’s book is like a backstage pass. A staff writer, Andy’s most recognized for his “The Opposite” episode, which stemmed from his own life. (The book also features “new” Seinfeld episodes he pitched that never made it to air, along with a myriad of original comedy half-hours that drew plenty of heat, short of an on-air time slot.)
In “The Opposite,” George Constanza is unemployed, unattached and still living with his parents. He concludes that every life decision that led him there must have been wrong. From that moment on he does the opposite of what he would normally do and is astounded with the positive results.
“The Opposite” has remained so beloved in popular culture that, in 2016, Michael Smerconish, CNN host, and Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, interviewed Andy about its implications in Donald Trump’s campaign. “Instead of focusing on the electorate, the people, the country,” Andy opined, “Trump decided to do the opposite — focus on himself, i.e. his amazing ego, his amazing polls, the amazing size of his no longer private parts.”
Among Andy’s many other noted works, for Showtime, he produced, wrote and hosted the 1990 short, 6 Minutes, a brilliant spoof of 60 Minutes in which he played all the commentators, including Andy Rooney. It not only won him a CableAce Award but also a complimentary and funny letter from Don Hewitt, 60 Minutes’ legendary producer.
Perhaps the most unexpected joy of Banging is Andy’s “cartooning” and the 65 panels he shares in the chapter “Tooning In,” including one featured in the New Yorker. Andy has drawn cartoons since he was a kid, including likenesses of Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra who ultimately signed them.
As an adult, though still a kid at heart, Andy has written nearly 300 panels for the award-winning syndicated newspaper comic strip Bizarro. Andy pitches the copy, gag, imagined setting and staging before the artist weaves in his magic.
The chapter “Up & Down” describes one of Andy’s many original projects, “Up and Down Guys.” Originally a webcast and later a KPFK radio show, Andy’s co-host/therapist plays “Up Guy” and Andy, the patient, plays “Down Guy” who sees the glass as half full even when it’s brimming over.
In one episode, Down Guy laments that when he invited a girl to his place hoping for romance and offered her a drink she insisted “Nothing alcoholic.” (Or as he puts it, “platonic juice.”) Rejected, he served orange juice, but the less expensive “from concentrate.”
For those aspiring to write for Hollywood, Banging provides a uniquely funny, albeit cautionary, roadmap. And yet, despite his rollercoaster writer/performer life, Andy’s optimism always prevails. It’s as though if he ever thought of giving up, he did “the opposite.”
Banging My Head Against the Wall is available at Amazon.com. You can visit Andy at www.andycowan.net Jack, who writes “Laughing Matters” every Friday, is at email@example.com.